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This Kickstarter keyboard combines 1970s tech with magnets to make every key pressure-sensitive

This Kickstarter keyboard combines 1970s tech with magnets to make every key pressure-sensitive


The Keystone is the latest project from keyboard enthusiasts Input Club

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The Keystone’s keys respond differently depending on how hard you press them.
The Keystone’s keys respond differently depending on how hard you press them.
Video: Input Club

One of the big benefits of mechanical keyboards is that there are almost an infinite number of different designs and switch types to fit your needs. But regardless of whether you’re using a gaming-friendly Cherry MX Red switch or a more typing-focused Cherry MX Blue, the actual mechanical mechanism inside each switch is largely the same; you press down on a key, an electrical circuit gets completed, and the resulting signal indicates that a key has been pressed. However, Input Club, the keyboard startup behind cult keyboard community favorites like the WhiteFox, has a different idea about how mechanical keyboard switches should work. 

Input Club is currently running a Kickstarter campaign for the Keystone, a new keyboard that will be the first to feature the company’s new mechanical Silo switches. Rather than relying on a metal contact like most other mechanical switches, these Silo switches have a small magnet that moves up and down as you press a switch. Then, a small Hall effect sensor in the PCB is able to measure this movement by sensing changes in the magnetic field, and it translates this into an electrical signal which the keyboard registers as a key press. 

It sounds like an arbitrary change, but it’s one that creates some pretty interesting opportunities. For one, according to Input Club CEO Andrew Lekashman, the smaller amount of moving parts inside the switch means that the company expects them to last a lot longer. Their estimate is that these switches will last for billions of presses rather than the millions that current Cherry MX switches are able to withstand. There’s also no need for metallic pins to be in contact with the PCB, which means that it’s easier for the switches to be hot-swapped without the need for soldering. (Although, unfortunately that also means that the new switches aren’t compatible with keyboards designed for regular Cherry MX switches.)

“The future of all human computer interaction is analog”

The benefit that Input Club is emphasizing the most, however, is analog control. In other words, the keyboard can tell the difference between you lightly pressing a key and you pressing one more heavily. According to Lekashman, the sensors in the keyboard can distinguish between as many as 200 or 500 different points of pressure, but he thinks the eventual software will advise the user to play with around 10 levels of sensitivity, to keep things manageable.

Input Club’s ideas for what this functionality could do range from small features like being able to press a key harder to produce a capital letter without needing to hold down the shift key, to much more ambitious ideas around offering finer controls in image or video editing programs. It’s such a profound change that Lekashman thinks the entire industry will soon follow suit. “I expect in about two to three years, every company that makes keyboards will have an analog keyboard,” the CEO says. “The future of all human computer interaction is analog.”

The use of a magnet inside the Silo switch means it has an incredibly simple construction.
The use of a magnet inside the Silo switch means it has an incredibly simple construction.
Image: Input Club

I’m a little more skeptical of the potential here. We’ve already seen at least one analog keyboard before, the Wooting One, and it doesn’t feel like more established manufacturers like Corsair and Razer have been rushing to follow suit. A lot of the problem is finding programs that support this kind of functionality; with such a small proportion of keyboards being analog, there’s not much incentive for a huge company like Adobe to build support into one of its programs like Photoshop. 

Lekashman, however, argues that many of these programs already support analog control schemes, they just do so for other input methods. Photoshop features full support for Wacom tablets that offer thousands of different pressure points, for example, while most PC games have built-in support for controllers which include analog control sticks and analog triggers. Lekashman says that the Keystone keyboard’s software, HID-IO, can then be used to emulate this different hardware, to bring analog functionality to programs that aren’t designed to support the Keystone specifically.

Analog control also means Keystone can offer variable actuation points like we’ve seen before with the Topre Realforce RGB. This means you can change when the keyboard registers a press, whether it’s right at the bottom of a keyboard’s travel or after a much slighter tap. Lekashman even claims that the software could automatically adjust its sensitivity on a key-by-key basis depending on how heavily it senses each of your fingers typing, but I’ll wait until I’ve had a chance to try out the finished keyboard to evaluate this particular claim for myself.

Analog control aside, the feature of the Keystone and its Silo switches that’s likely to get mechanical keyboard enthusiasts most excited is their use of a Beam spring, a rare mechanical switch technology that dates back to the 1970s.

When most people think of IBM’s keyboards, the first switch that comes to mind is the company’s iconic buckling spring switch. However, the company’s earlier beam spring switch is even more legendary. This switch has achieved an almost mythical status among mechanical keyboard fans, not least because they’re almost impossible to get your hands on. Lekashman says that it’s not uncommon for beam spring keyboards to sell on eBay for upward of $1,000, because IBM only used the switch in a small number of its most premium workstations before shifting to the cheaper buckling spring switch design.

The problem is that this beam spring mechanism was not only expensive for IBM to produce, but they also took up a huge amount of space. Each of IBM’s beam spring switches were over an inch tall, making them completely impractical for… well pretty much anything. Here’s a video of one of the company’s switches being disassembled so you can get an idea of just how chunky these things were. 

Input Club’s take on the beam spring switch can be made so small because it’s not relying on the same metal contacts as the old 1970s beam spring switches — it’s just a simple magnet moving up and down. This new design means that “there’s just so much room for activities!” as Lekashman puts it, meaning it’s possible to include a small beam spring mechanism in the switch to provide that massive tactile click for which the switches are famous. 

Not every Silo switch will come equipped with a beam spring. One variant will be entirely linear, like Cherry MX Red switches, while a second has a small tactile bump, with a feel that’s similar to a Cherry MX Brown. But if you want a key switch with a click that’s louder and more pronounced than even a buckling spring, then you’re going to want to try out the beam spring model. Lekashman says that the company is currently testing a couple of different designs for this switch, and that keyboards ordered with it are due to ship slightly later than the other two switches.

You’ll have noticed that Input Club is far more excited about its Silo switches than the keyboard that’s ostensibly the focus of its Kickstarter, and that’s no accident. Although the company has made a name for itself with its keyboards, Lekashman’s eventual aim is for it to produce switches and technology, while relying on other companies to build the keyboards that house them. Input Club has already produced one switch called the Hako (well, technically two if you count the original Halo switch that it had to abandon when it split from Massdrop), and with the Keystone its focus is moving even more in that direction.

Oh, and the Keystone has RGB lighting. Obviously.
Oh, and the Keystone has RGB lighting. Obviously.
Image: Input Club

I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t pretty skeptical about a lot of what Input Club is trying to pull off with the Keystone. Keyboards haven’t changed much in the decades we’ve been using personal computers, and it feels like a stretch to think that they could make the shift to analog control now. 

But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in trying out the Keystone when it’s eventually available, mainly because I’m fascinated by what a beam spring switch feels like to type on. As far as I’m aware, this is the first time these switches will be mass produced, not least at a price that’s fairly affordable by mechanical keyboard standards. The fact that Input Club has had to develop an entirely new way of magnetically sensing key presses is almost of a secondary importance compared to this feat.

Since this is a Kickstarter project, all of the usual disclaimers around backing a crowdfunding project apply. Any project like this can be subject to delays, and Input Club has not been immune from these problems with its past campaigns. But, if you’re comfortable with the potential for delays, then the Keystone mechanical keyboard is available to back until its campaign ends on August 15th. Prices start at $149 for a tenkeyless version of the keyboard (i.e. one that omits the numpad) with linear or tactile Silo switches, and rise to $188 if you want a model with the beam spring switches. The company is planning to ship the former in February next year, while the beam spring model is due to ship later in July 2020.

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